It sounds like something out of a Gothic novel. Golfball-sized hail falls in the night and blasts football-sized holes in the delicate glass roof covering a storied, turn-of-the-last-century indoor garden.
Or maybe it's just a new twist on an old saw: People who run glass houses shouldn't encounter hailstones.
But the June 2011 storm that blew in from the east and devastated
In fact, jokes Mary Eysenbach, some frozen rain chunks wouldn't be such a bad thing for the
"We're doing the hail dance," she says, and you wonder if it might be true.
What the storm has accomplished at Garfield,
"It's been great," says Eysenbach, the Park District's director of conservatories. "It's actually been great. It's been difficult for us to deal with, but in the long run it's done great things for the place."
She holds to this view even as, on a morning earlier this year, she bends over and plucks something shiny from the soil. "Oh, lookit," she says. "Here is some glass that's from the original roof. There's still always glass that we find."
But less and less of it. The old, single-paned glass, dating back to a replacement in 1940, more than 30 years after the building opened in 1908, was damaged by a wildly anomalous storm that just happened to hit hardest in the
Currently closed to receive the new, see-through skins are the last of the rooms on the list, the Desert Room and the building's gem, the central Fern Room. The temporary, plastic ceiling in the Fern Room was scheduled to come off this week, now that the weather is warming and the delicate plants can stand the exposure.
"We did not have a way or a budget to replace these roofs," Eysenbach says, "and they needed to be done... We're going to now have new roofs. The whole conservatory will be the new glass and we'll never have to worry about a hailstorm again."
She knows this because at the time of the storm, some of the conservatory's roofs already had the laminated glass in place: "The hailstrom that hit us with those huge hailstones did not break the existing laminated glass.This new glass we're putting in has actually been hailstorm tested."
More blessings: Friends of the gardens from across the country have been motivated to reach out with letters of support or, often, checks.
"It helped us understand the love that people have for the conservatory," Eysenbach says. "Just within minutes of the news stories coming out that morning, people were on Facebook and e-mailing us, saying, 'What can I do to help?' 'Ohmigod, I love that place!' From all over the country. That's been really heartwarming for the people that work here."
Her takeway? It's good to have greenery on your side. "The public has been really understanding and accommodating. I think it's a testament to the power of flowers and plants to help people relax and enjoy themselves. It s hard to get really angry when you're next to an azalea. It's not impossible, I'll tell you, but it's hard."
"The public support was unbelievable," says Eunita Rushing, president of the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, the not-for-profit formed in 1998 to support the conservatory. "We're sort of removed from the location of the other large museums downtown, and sometimes you sort of feel like, 'Does anyone really know were here? Does anyone know what we do here?"
The storm was "devastating," Rushing says. "I just couldn't believe it. It looked like every piece of glass that was in the roof was on the floor. It was a nightmare, but it's really given us a new focus, re-energized us in a way we hadn't been before and given us a new hope and new vision."
Since the storm has forced a series of room closures inside the building, people are paying more attention to the neatly made-over zones out behind the conservatory, the outdoor gardens, with their ponds and walkways.
And the grand old building, designed to resemble a (gigantic) Midwestern haystack, is getting a while-you're-at-it makeover. Excuses to defer maintenance drift away when the roof is literally off and the individual rooms have become construction zones.
So during a Tribune visit in late February, shortly after the Fern Room was closed, a worker was taking advantage of ceiling-height scaffolding to redo the lights in the adjacent Show Room, which houses temporary exhibits and should be re-opening in the next week or two.
From that perch, you could see full details of the steel-and-glass structure and why, with two acres under glass, the building would have been so vulnerable to projectiles issuing from the sky.
"We lost 85 percent of the roofs in Fern and Show," says Eysenbach, "and about 30 percent in Desert." The glass roofs in the 10 non-public propagation houses also needed replacement.
Along the way, they learned some interesting lessons. For instance: When you remove all the glass from a steel-and-glass structure, the whole thing will lift up a bit, and the doors will fall off. Also: When you put in new, thicker glass, some of the support structure will need to be toughened.
Scaffolding in the Fern Room not only lends an industrial, almost steampunk touch to what had been fecund and exotic, but it needs to be moved every two week. Ferns have very precise heat, humidity and shade needs, one of the reasons why the conservatory's collection is considered so special.
Cleanup alone was about $2 million and the total repair and renovation bill will come to $15.2 million, said a park district spokeswoman. Of that, the park district is paying $6 million while the rest will come from insurance carriers — although, in the manner of big insurance payouts, "we're still negotiating," Eysenbach says.
The conservatory alliance's One Pane at a Time campaign has raised an additional $830,000, according to Rushing.
When she started seven years ago, Eysenbach thought she was taking the conservatories job to "connect people to nature, particularly the plant world, in the most interesting ways possible," she says. "We've been able to do that. But you know, we did get sidetracked a lot by this construction."
So she's learned about building trades and insurance, about the intricacies of how her biggest building works, about park district peers she might not otherwise have come in contact with.
And when the work is substantially completed by mid-September, and the conservatory is no longer splitting its time between public park and haven for guys climbing toward the ceiling in steel-toed shoes?
"I'm excited about it," says Eysenbach. "I'm excited about having the new roofs, about having new plants added to the collection."
The place should be open this fall for visitors to see what's been done and to once again roam through all of the rooms, reveling in greenery that's otherwise hard to find in Chicago.
But the big push will come with the next, spring season. "We are aiming for the beginning of 2015 to be a real bust-out, wow year for us," Eysenbach says.
That'll be quite a contrast from 2011, defined by things being busted up and people saying, "Wow" in much more solemn tones.
Garfield Park Conservatory
When: Daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Wednesdays until 8 p.m.)
Where: 300 North Central Park Ave.